Friday, 15 July 2011

Against the Tyranny of Imagination

Some people are very romantic about poverty. These are people who have not themselves experienced poverty. Some of them even hide their comfortable origins by aping the accents, tastes and manners of those who grew up very impoverished indeed--not just economically poverished, but socially and culturally. But those who were born and raised in poverty don't romanticize it. They want out.

People are also very romantic about imagination. These are often adults who encourage children to dream. There was, I recall, a cult of the imaginative child when I was a child, and so I felt that it was perfectly fine to dream my life away. Novels poked fun at the traditional Christian unease with fictitious literature, so I felt that it was perfectly fine to read storybooks almost constantly. We're not talking Wildflowers of Ontario here: we're talking about a constant diet of fiction with the newspaper and some stories about saints and world war aces thrown in. My worried parents ordered me outside into the fresh air, but as I swung on the swings I just invented more stories, and these were much more harmful ones, since they tended to be about me myself.

Everything on earth, apart from stories and cute boys, seemed fundamentally boring. Piano lessons--boring. Ballet lessons--boring. Ice hockey--boring. Girl Guides--not as boring, actually, although I am absolutely certain that I spent Girl Guide tramps through the woods daydreaming away. Daydreaming became a great comfortable fuzzy blanket in which I endured childhood and waited desperately to grow up.

Needless to say, I regret this now because childhood should be a period in which children grasp the fundamental realities of life. And some of those fundamental realities include what human beings are really like and how true friendship and even sincere courtship works. Not to know these things before high school graduation is a massive lacuna in a child's education.

I did not like the boys with whom I spent ten years of my life in elementary school and so greatly preferred the boys in books. These books were usually written by women, women who were now very old or had been dead for some time. The women, if born in England, reflected not just the prejudices of their times, but of their class, which I absorbed without realizing for a moment their implications for (A) today and (B) middle-class me.

I also assumed that it must be English boys who were the only ones worth knowing, or at very least boys who went (thank you, Enid Blyton) to fee-paying schools. Fortunately, an chance insult by a boy attending Upper Canada College put paid to that hypothesis. And, as a matter of fact, the sons of the rich (and their pals) often behave like out-and-out bastards. So much for the Famous Five, alas.

It is sad how even today wealth is so often conflated with goodness in fiction, when the opposite is so often the case in real life. Even little orphaned Harry Potter is a millionaire, with umpteen sacks of gold in the bank. Bridget Jones falls for a tremendously rich professional. So, conveniently, does the Shopoholic.

I am certain dozens of my readers think that Jane Austen's Mr Darcy is the Ideal Man. However, Mr Darcy's real-life counterpart would NEVER have spoken to one of my readers [or her great-great-great-grandmother] in a million years, unless to say "A cup of tea, please" or "Tell me, good woman, is this the road to Netherfield?" before handing her a tip. It would be quite amazing if Mr Darcy (Mr Bingley, Mr Ferrars, Colonel Brandon) did not--before his marriage---go to bed with the more attractive middle-class slappers who hit on him in clubs, and absolutely impossible that he might have married a middle-class girl, slapper or not. The equally fictitious (but credible) Mr Bennett was "a gentleman" which in today's terms means a multimillionaire.

This leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that Mr Darcy (if real) would have been more likely to marry Paris Hilton than you. Oh--don't laugh. Mr Darcy was nothing if not based on the utterly conventional "gentleman" of his time, and conventional "gentlemen" of our time don't get that exercised about female chastity. They're much more concerned about whether or not you can afford to go on holiday to the Caribbean with their friends. Really, unless you or your mother features regularly in the pages of Hello, you're much better off with a Nice Catholic or other hardworking Boy of Good Will.

Meanwhile, Mr Darcy despised his wife's mother, and as much as we might resist this gruesome fact, a fair number of us become our mothers in the end. I can too easily imagine a scene at Pemberley, 20 years on, when Elizabeth blurts out, "Oh Mr Darcy" in her mother's voice, and Darcy looks at her, not with amusement, but with a growing boredom and contempt.

And this intense literary discussion brings me to my major point, hinted at yesterday, that young women, instead of daydreaming about men both fictitious and real, should force themselves to be utterly rooted in reality. And I do mean reality, not pessimism. The most useful line I learned in five years of studying the philosophy of a Jesuit named Bernard Lonergan was, "I don't have enough data to make a judgement."

When you are in public, speaking to people, I recommend paying strict attention to what they look like, what they say, what gestures they make, who they talk to, and how they leave. Only then can you get at all a fair picture of what they might be like. I think it also very important to pay strict attention to your inner feelings of attraction and revulsion. Many a woman has chosen to ignore her spontaneous reactions of revulsion towards an attractive man because he is just so good-looking or because no other single man has paid her so much attention in six months (or ever). I was taught the scientific method when I was 12; I now realize it works not just for chemistry class but for people, too.

I've written before about imaginary boyfriends, and given the fatal tendency to daydream, I think it worth repeating that (A) you are not in a relationship with a man unless you have actually met him, and (B) you are in relationships with all kinds of people all the time. It drives me crazy how "relationship" is used to denote solely those relationships based on erotic desires. Every time someone tells me that she has never been in "a relationship", I remind her that she has been in at least one relationships ever since her mother learned she existed. Women have simply got to stop privileging non-existent erotic "relationships" over the fruitful real-life relationships we already have. That way we won't be birds for the plucking by silver-tongued smoothies.

A strict attention to the data might also help us to see or hear a man's "No" either when or before he actually says it. Many of the letters I receive are about a man who has already said "No."

Imagination is, in itself, a good thing. It entertains writers as they write and readers as they read. However, too much of it is a bad thing, and when it comes to navigating the difficult shoals of life, it absolutely must take a back seat to reason.


KLev said...

This is a great post, I just have some literary quibbles-the American caste system is based mostly on money. The English caste system was based on inherited land. It was possible to be quite impoverished, while still technically being a member of the gentry. Mr. Darcy might not have married you or me, but he certainly wouldn't have married Paris Hilton. He would have married some nice girl from Wellsley with a house in Nantucket and an Art History degree.

Alice B said...

For me Girl Guides was disappointing, but that was because I had, um, been reading old editions of the Guide Annual from my mum´s days where the guides had adventures and did not have to fill out permission forms all the time.

Perhaps one reason why poverty, despite being unpleasant, is attractive to some comfortable, bored people is that it gives them something that will give things and people around them a very tactile meaning. It gives them a goal. OUT! It engages them in life. It is like an adventure novel. It drags them into the world, where the problem of survival actually is something to have to think about, where the people around are either helping or hindering what they want to do, where speculation as to who Mr Husband will be is far down the priority list, where they are living their own book instead of reading one or dreaming. I don´t think imagination is about wanting to be disconnected from reality, for me at least it is about wanting to be connected but reality failing to reach out and grab me.

PS Bought book online, read, liked it, none of the covers are my thing, but love the Canadian title.

PPS What do you think of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre? Not urgent. Just curious.

Grad in a big city said...

Oh data. As a scientist I am trained to trust the data above all else, but it is so hard in the emotional realm. This post hits home as of late.

Also, in defense of storybooks: for those of us who were unfortunate enough to be raised in the middle of unhappy marriages, the stories were a good way out and helped to keep me from becoming despairing about love and marriage as a whole.

withinterest said...

Let's not forget the juxtaposition of Wickham and Darcy.

Darcy being moral and rich.

Wickham being immoral and poor.

Seraphic said...

KLev, not being in the USA, I was not thinking of the USA, in particular, but of Britain today. I don't think the modern Mr Darcy would marry Paris Hilton either--just that she would be more likely than you (if you are female) or me (if I weren't already married!) A real-life 1800 Mr Darcy would not marry a woman whose father was in the hotel industry, be he ever so rich.

Yes, storybooks are indeed a great escape. But I am reminded of a friend's description of permanent expats in poor countries with great beaches: there is something not quite right about being in permanent escape.

Seraphic said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that I think the fictional Mr Rochester was a very wicked man. He was terrible to his "ward", i.e. illegitimate daughter, he kept his first wife locked up in the attic, he tried to commit bigamy, and when caught he explained what a mad, wicked, subhuman his first wife was.

The problem with Mr Rochester (and Heathcliff) is that the Brontes lead us to think that real-life men who behave like them are romantic heroes and good bets in the long run. They certainly are not.

mary said...

Oh man, there are some very true words in this post. I have been so foolishly misled by handsome men (one in particular) in the past. No more! Never again!

Also, I tried out your tactic of "bless his little heart" and it works! At least 200 men in my city have had their little hearts blessed this week (for I see a lot of them on public transportation). It has made me realize that I need an attitude adjustment in how I relate to men, which is a step in the right direction.

ceciliamschwartz said...

As far as Mr. Darcy... I convinced myself in my early twenties that he was the model man. And then I read North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Her Mr. Thornton was so much more real. He was a working man with flaws, struggles, manly emotions, and many redeeming qualities too. (And it didn't hurt that the movie version of Mr. Thornton was so amazingly handsome.)

I spent too many years living in my head. Daydreams were my comfort, my escape. My spiritual director encouraged me to be present to the moment and I found that my reality is often times more exciting than daydreaming.

Thanks to my resolve to live in reality, I've been able to recognize the Mr. Thorntons in my life. And one or two actually exceed the fictional standards. Now I just have to keep myself in reality so I don’t miss the excitement… Blast those bad habits!

Julie said...

I can't speak to any of the literary stuff in this post, as I read these books too long ago to really remember!

I was just reading a book review in First Things which discussed the concept of "sexual scripts", that is, that people make decisions based on how they think things "ought to go", or according to particular story-patterns. Anyway, I thought that dovetailed with your thoughts about the dangers of imagination. One gets caught up thinking about how the story could or should go, coming up with alternate endings when, as you say, the ending has already taken place.

theobromophile said...

Some people are very romantic about poverty. These are people who have not themselves experienced poverty.
Unrelated to romance, but to career: sometime in my mid-twenties, I noticed that there are a lot of middle-aged adults who are rather romantic about impoverishing career paths, but who are always, to a letter, very comfortable. I've been startled by the number of yacht-sailing people who encourage young people to take on massive amounts of scholastic debt and then try to save the world. No, money isn't everything - but it's everything when you haven't got any of it.

I wasn't much for Rochester until after he lost his physical strength and his fortunes. Was much more of a St. John Rivers fan when growing up.

It would be quite amazing if Mr Darcy (Mr Bingley, Mr Ferrars, Colonel Brandon) did not--before his marriage---go to bed with the more attractive middle-class slappers who hit on him in clubs,

As you know, otherwise decent men can be ruined by bad women or weak women. They change - and not for the better. A real-life Mr. Darcy would be so used to sexual access that he wouldn't want a NCG, or any sort of nice girl (atheist, Muslim, evangelical, what-have-you).

KLev said...

I think you all don't give Mr. Darcy enough credit. Books, and fairy-tales, and hero legends, and our grandmothers' stories play a valuable role in moral psychology--they give us, as someone said, "scripts" about how things ought to be. Living for and in scripts and ideals is not healthy, of course, but neither is deconstructing every ideal just because real life tends to be a bit messier than books. Art isn't life, and isn't meant to be, but it can be a helpful accessory to a life well lived.

Of course, some art can still fulfill it's own purpose without providing a "script"--but I do think the Mr. Darcy mythos has quite a lot of value. P&P is, if anything, a tale of LIzzy's journey from the land of vanity and wishful thinking to the land of reality and sober appreciation of worth.

Seraphic said...

If by the Mr Darcy ideal, you mean the arrogant boy who makes nasty remarks about the people around him but then--despite himself--becomes drawn to the second-prettiest girl in the neighbourhood, despite disliking her parents, or by the multimillionaire with a loving staff of servants, then I'd have to disagree. If you mean a guy who has decent manners and stands up to overbearing relations that don't like his girlfriend, then I'm with you.

My first husband was a total Darcy fan who thought (quite wrongly) that I was Elizabeth Bennett and that my mother was as idiotic as Mrs Bennett, so I am very much against the idea that we should all be looking for our Mr Darcys instead of for, well, our Mr Rights.

One serious problem with the Mr Darcy sstory for our times is that "Negging"--insulting a girl and then paying her compliments--is a time and tested technique of the Pick-Up Artist community.

Seraphic said...

I wrote a lot more on this, but the computer ate it. Suffice it to say that Jane neither knew or could have revealed she knew or even written "the whole story" about the private lives of men of the ruling class. Many very decent men have existed, but Mr Darcy never did, and if he had, given who he was, he probably was not a virgin on his wedding night.

Georgette Heyer, writing in the 20th century, is a lot more frank on the relationships between 19th century gentlemen and prostitutes. I note, however, that she never lands even one of her pure heroines with an STD after marriage to her oh-so-serial monogamists.

This of course must have happened to many innocent married women of the ruling classes, and certainly did to Baronness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) in the early 20th.

Sorry to bust the bubble and yes, great literature does inspire some men to be good men, but it is best, once one has laid aside the entertaining tale, to be rooted in reality. Not pessimistic, mind you-- just not making a judgement until all the relative data is in.

KLev said...

Mr. Darcy is not perfect--but Elizabeth is also quite cynical and vain. He is arrogant and self-righteous, and she very wisely will have none of it. But what begins to change her mind (aside from the magnificent grounds at Pemberley) is the housekeeper's account of his temperance "he doesn't rattle about like other young men," and kindness; his devotion to his sister, and his kindness to her and her family. I don't think it's a tale of a bad boy going good, but of two flawed people growing into happiness through the self-knowledge their encounters produce.

I agree with your overall point, just not your reading of Pride and Prejudice. And if the story is distasteful to you because of your former husband, I completely understand and will drop the discussion.

Eowyn said...

Unrelated to this heart-breaking exposé of Mr. Darcy going on (which I'm actually enjoying quite a bit...I like questioning what people automatically assume to be respectable)....

I thought of this post later on today (after I had read it) when I found myself buying a cookbook for attractive looking sweets which I will likely never make. I spent the bus ride home dreaming about how I will make impressive-looking treats in my impeccably clean kitchen to the amazement of all and sundry, winning the heart of my (still elusive) future spouse. It occured to me that I knew fairly certainly that I will never make these treats, but that I have trained myself to think that the daydreaming is tantamount to actually doing it, thus justifying spending the $20 for the pretty cookbook. Ay me!

Seraphic said...

KLev, I have no problem with the traditional reading of P&P. It's a marvellous book in all respects. Austen was a genius and I doubt she will ever fall out of fashion. The character development is deftly handled.

My problem is with hosts of young women (and a few odd men) thinking that Austen's early 19th century work (whose first draft was written at the end of the 18th) about enormously rich and privileged people is any kind of guide to life and love in the early 21st.

Meanwhile Mr Darcy's renewed appeal for the female imagination probably owes more to Colin Firth's wet shirt than it does to a close reading of the text, and Colin Firth is definitely emitting the 20th century bad boy scowl.

It is just an unhappy accident of history that my ex-husband developed an obsession with P&P (and me); my overall point is that we ought not to to expect our lives--and the lives of other people--to follow the strictures of fiction, either fiction we make up ourselves or the storybooks we must love. If we choose to live books instead of life we can come a cropper. We can also miss out on joys beyond all merely human imaginings.

Eowyn, I don't think men fall for women just because they make impressive looking sweet treats. The blogger Andrew Cusack did scream with horror when I said I didn't think single women should bake cookies for bachelors, but I'm standing firm on this one. On the other hand, baking cookies FOR A GROUP does signal to the old-fashioned sort of man that a woman is a womanly woman, only then you might be stuck listening to the sort of man who tells you what's wrong with other women these days.

Mrs Doyle said...

Re rampant imaginations - it can be really easy for the imagination to be hijacked by the Evil One in the spiritual life, if it goes unchecked in all other domains.

I've learnt the hard way!

As a child, I was encouraged to read loads of stories, probably read Thomas Hardy too young, and much preferred the sanctuary of books to other forms of entertainment. While this was great, it does make it harder to interact with reality when there's a great and attractive escape mechanism so easily available.

Left unchecked, the imagination can wreck havoc and cause lots of grief when it comes to the 'big issues' of a healthy spiritual life - especially vocational stuff.

My spiritual director advised me of the dangers, and although I quite enjoyed and prided myself on such a wonderful imagination, I started to realise what a two-edged sword it could be. The devil had a field day, and still does occasionally.

Luckily, I'm surrounded by practical people who only indulge me on a semi-regular basis and then take my musings to extremes just to show me how ridiculous I can be!

Eowyn said...

I was going to respond "Yes, I know men don't fall for you just for impressive-looking sweets," but then I did a quick scan of my heart and there was definitely a file lodged in there which read "Men will fall in love with you if they see you are good at baking." It was right next to the file which read "You will not find a husband until you get into the habit of baking on a regular basis." I really ought to scan my heart for lies more often...

sciencegirl said...

I was overly imaginative mainly when I was quite bored. My first job was: filling bags of groceries. It is not very hard to double-bag the cans, to put the bananas, eggs and bread on top, and to put the cold stuff together. Doing that for 8 hrs a day leaves a lot of brain cells unused, and they were used to imagine myself in rather different environments. I also went on a lot of multi-day road trips through the desert with my family. 8 hrs of desert is gorgeous, but rather monotonous. Darn right I didn't concentrate that much on "the moment." The trouble was, I started getting used to running two tracks in my mind at all times: reality + way more fun imagination. And of course my imagination was rather self-serving. When I started having a more interesting environment, I started doing that a lot less.

Anyway, I've read all of Jane Austen's books, and I've loved them all, but I never found those men characters I might fall in love with. I found them perfectly adequate partners for the female characters, and was happy they got together in the end. Except for Fanny marrying her first cousin in "Mansfield Park," which I just couldn't find romantic. My favorite marriage was actually Elinor and Edward in S&S, and Edward is really rather hapless. I wouldn't want him for myself!

I fall "in love" with Mr Darcy FOR ELIZABETH -- and the thrill there is mostly the realization that he loves her enough to relinquish certain trappings of his pride.

I think you're right about Colin Firth's influence. The wet shirt scene and the fencing scene say: MANLY!!! The other big problem is that particular book plays into the "He hasn't asked me out, and he ignores me, and he has nothing to do with me, but he JUST MIGHT be Secretly In Love with Me. He Just Might Not Know it Yet Himself." This is the real fantasy -- not Colin Firth, not the rich dude with the big house -- but that your current crush is suddenly going to not only ask you out for coffee, but declare a love so passionate it shocks even him.

I think Austen's "influence" on romantic ideals is just that movies based on her books came out in the 90s; if it had been Shakespeare who'd got hugely popular instead, we'd all be talking about the problems of Benedict and how Beatrice and he would have an unpleasant marriage after all.

Anonymous said...

"The blogger Andrew Cusack did scream with horror when I said I didn't think single women should bake cookies for bachelors, but I'm standing firm on this one."

This made me chuckle. It's good for him to be shocked. I actually am baking cookies for Andrew, but I'm married and he's a friend of my husbands' and in a newish country with a new job, poor wee thing.That being said, I completely agree with you about single women baking (or cooking or cleaning) for bachelors. It puts women in a servile position, and makes them very vulnerable.

Regarding Jane Austen, I love her books, her characters, etc. However, I probably read far too much of it a far too young an age, and given my romantic disposition it absolutely warped my opinions about how modern young men ought to behave. It actually got me into a lot of emotional trouble. I think Jane Austen herself would be the first to recommend staying rooted in reality and not giving yourself over to gothic imaginings. Thank Heaven I ended up choosing a NCB with whom I attempt to struggle out of poverty.

Mary MacArthur said...

As a Theology major and English Lit minor (at a Catholic university that lives up to that name) I think you short-change fiction.

It is true that people should not expect their lives to follow their favorite romances. As you say, dreaming of Mr. Darcy, or worse, Edward Cullen, can lead to self-absorption, being easy prey for bad men or refusing good men, and misery. But it can be a wonderful thing to see reality as the fairy tale it is--all of us following Christ the King in battle against the Dragon Satan, in the context of each of our individual adventures of life. Great fiction is so much more than entertainment. It reveals the Transcendent. Imagination, when married to reason, lets us see the beauty and evil of the world as it is.

Seraphic said...

As an M.Div./STB and an English Lit M.A. who has written three novels and three novellas, I think you miss my point.

alias clio said...

Well, Seraphic, I do see your point and agree with it, having suffered some of the same confusion between life and fiction. All the same, and speaking only for me, I'd qualify it a little.
1) Fiction is safer if you read it with the head as well as the heart. P&P is a story about not rushing to judgment. If you take *that* away from reading it, it probably won't hurt you. If you see it as a script for living, it could.
2) In my case it was the Lord of the Rings that became my "escape" (and yes, I know that sometimes escape is good! Tolkien fans will know what I mean...) In other words, High Romance can be as dangerous as vulgar romance, perhaps especially for boys. This ain't a girl thing.
3) It *is*, however, a puberty thing. That way of reading books is most common among young persons between 11 and 15 years old. I don't think it is possible to stop this: it comes with the territory for those who have a certain temperament. Most grow out of it in the later teens. Even I, who had great difficulty doing so, managed it.
4) Where I most agree with you is in discouraging adults from cultivating the tastes and behaviours of teenage children when it comes to the use and abuse of literature.
5) It's possible to daydream too much about actual, real life, as I think you implied in your post, but readers seized on your Darcy comments and ignored that bit. A pity, because while daydreaming about fictional heros merely wastes time, daydreaming about real men is *deadly* to your understanding of them.

Alias Clio

Seraphic said...

Yes, I am struck that pointing out the very fictitious nature of Mr Darcy has caused some readers to assume I am blind the the beauties of world literature.

More people have enjoyed Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" than have committed suicide because of it, I am happy to say. And I am sure we can all enjoy Rousseau's "Emile" without think about how very wrong Rousseau was about children. And I daresay we can read most novels about heroic second wives without concluding that first wives are usual evil bitches who deserve to be murdered or locked up in attics. It seems churlish to point out that the hero of "Henry V" seems to think mass rape the natural conclusion of conquering an enemy town and that this in itself is not a transcendent thought.

I have the greatest respect for all powerful, beautiful, dangerous things, and thus I have enormous respect for literature--almost as much respect as I have for fire.

Emma said...

It's worth pointing out that Elizabeth Bennet herself says that she falls in love with Mr. Darcy "upon first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly." In other words, she first fell in love with Mr. Darcy when she had tangible proof of how rich he truly was!

I do agree with your criticism of Pride and Prejudice, especially since so many Christians seem to be pointing to Jane Austen's books as a "script" for life, which is silly, imo. I was so thankful to see one Catholic writer point out that Jane Austen's books really glorify selfishness and greed, in a subtle way, but a real way.